Raising The Bar, Chicago Style

There is something wonderful happening down here in the borderlands. If you have been following my writing over the last few years, you know that has become my mantra of sorts. Whether it’s because the dry heat is mummifying my brain or there really is a change taking place I really couldn’t say at times, though I suspect it’s more the latter than the former. Whatever it is, I’m just happy to see that some of that magic dust is being sprinkled on the theater community. I know when I moved back to Las Cruces, a few years ago, I was very disappointed in the theater being presented here. I’ve watched that change for the better over the past seven years.

I’m not sure why, or even how this change has occurred. The talent is pretty much the same, as are most of the faces, but many appear to be stepping up their games and that is never a bad thing. It IS community theater, after all, and I always take that into consideration. All I know is that more and more, I am rediscovering the thrill of watching a truly innovative and exciting production, without having to leave Las Cruces to do so. The latest is Scaffolding Theater Company’s sophomore production Chicago at the New Mexico State University Center for the Arts. I’ve got a lot of good things to say about that show, but first, I’m going to rant a little.

The review is coming, just bear with me...
The review is coming, just bear with me…

As I am not writing this in any official capacity – being on forced hiatus by the local newspapers because of the uproar caused over a negative review – I’m going to be completely frank, here. Theater in Las Cruces is very hit or miss. The Black Box Theater appears to be having more hits than misses, of late, due in large part to owner and Artistic Director Ceil Herman’s eye for finding interesting material and pairing it up with notable casting choices. She’s a hard taskmistress and everybody knows it, but when it comes to surpassing audience expectations, she’s got it locked down. Worthy assistance from the likes of Algernon D’Ammassa, Tom Smith and Amy Lanasa doesn’t hurt, either.

The same cannot be said for Las Cruces Community Theater, on the other hand, which relies far too heavily on the taste and direction of one small group of grandstanders. Recent performances have been lackluster and heavily dated, with no attempt whatsoever to bring something fresh to the offerings being trotted out on stage. The only real exceptions would have to be last season’s School For Lies and this season’s opener The Full Monty, both of which hit high water marks for the company. It should be noted, however, that one worthy production per season does not a regular patron attract.

There is no question that theater audiences are dwindling. Technology has made it far too easy to find entertainment of any kind instantly from the comfort of one’s couch, well in reach of the Cheetos and beer. Live entertainment, despite its immediacy and unpredictability, has fallen out of favor with Millennials, but that is not entirely their fault. What, after all, is being offered that would pull them away from their iPhones, iPads and laptops? An even better question would be, what kind of marketing is being done to attract them? The answer, sadly, is zilch.

Honestly, I believe the primary reason for the lack of interest in younger audiences is due to the fact that those who currently drive theatrical interest are far too self-absorbed to understand just how important it is to cater to an audience. Any audience. More and more, it seems to come down to what THEY want, what THEY like, and even more telling, what THEY want to “star” in. THEY could all take a major hint from Megan McQueen and Justin Lucero’s powerful new entry, Scaffolding Theater Company.

A minimalist set and fantastic performances give this Orange Is the New Black retelling of Chicago wings.
A minimalist set and fantastic performances give this Orange Is the New Black retelling of Chicago wings.

After a brilliantly executed debut last summer, with the exceptional musical Nine, which literally put audiences right smack in the middle of the action, Scaffolding has followed up with a fresh and topical retelling of the beloved hit musical Chicago. The fact that they were able to do so, while the revival is still playing on Broadway, is a small miracle. Having the story picked up in the prestigious tabloid of the theatrical world, Playbill, is another. All hail McQueen, the purveyor of small miracles.

The good folks at Samuel French, who allowed this production to take place despite the embargo, would be very proud of what their allowance has wrought. Placing the action completely within the walls of the prison, and giving it an Orange Is The New Black twist, was an inspired decision that ultimately gives this jailbird wings.

Spot on casting for not only the main roles, but every “character” that appears on stage, is also a rare treat. Both Nicole Bartlett as Velma Kelly and Taylor Rey as Roxie Hart are outstanding, delivering bravura performances that set the bar somewhere in the vicinity of the stratosphere. Pitch perfect performances by Marybeth Torres, as Matron Mama Morton and Valerie Mirelez as Little Mary Sunshine, alongside worthy performances by the only two actors in the ensemble, Robert Sciortino as Billy Flynn and David Reyes as Amos Hart, keep that bar soaring.

Robert Sciortino and the delightful Taylor Rey are Billy Flynn and Roxie Hart.
Robert Sciortino and the delightful Taylor Rey are Billy Flynn and Roxie Hart.

As with most revivals, the songs all remain the same. The brilliance of the restaging, however, allows some of those familiar gems to reveal hidden meanings due to the thematic change of the production. Offset that with the minimalism of one piano and a handful of kitchen-sink instruments to pound out the score and it makes every familiar tune sound, almost, fresh again.

The same can also be said for the minimalist sets and spare, but effective, lighting, courtesy of the multi-telented Lucero and Sam Tyson respectively. It did not go unnoticed by my fellow attendees that attention was paid even to the little details, like having the upper lighting in the auditorium turned completely off, giving the stage a more square and austere appearance. Yes, we noticed. Ushers dressed as prison guards, with the attitude to match, and a program that reads like it was produced by prison inmates are enchanting touches.

What works best here is the casting of hand-picked performers for key roles – something ordinarily looked down upon by the community theater purists, but hugely effective when handled properly. Spice it up with energetic and saucy choreography and you’ve got an exceptional evening of musical theater that transcends simple staging. Here is what has basically become another post-Broadway warhorse, presented with an eye toward topicality and youthful vigor.

Yes, it can be argued, and I’m sure some of you will, that because Chicago is being presented at New Mexico State University, it can’t help but be youthful. College students are youthful. Uh huh… news flash… one doesn’t have to be between the ages of 18 and 25 to be considered youthful. It’s the material and how it’s being presented that earns the ranking. I’ve seen younger actors on stage at LCCT. It hasn’t helped, much. Youthful and vigorous are not necessarily words that come to mind when one is discussing the fare being regularly presented within those walls. Take a hint, folks.

A subtle hint of things to come for community theater, perhaps?
A subtle hint of things to come for community theater, perhaps?

With this latest presentation of Chicago, what you have, in effect, is a reminder of why this particular piece of musical theater is so well-loved. It is presented reverently, but without being bogged down by the dated Fosse effect. Nothing turns a young audience off more than to feel that they are being asked to watch something their parents “dug” when they were young. If the show was good then, and it has held up well over the decades, finding ways to restage it for better contemporary appeal is key.

Think of it as a reboot, if you will. It’s worked marvelously well for movie franchises like Star Trek and Mad Max, why can’t it work for theater? The answer is easy. It can. Those who caught both Nine and Chicago at the NMSU Center for the Arts know this to be true. Scaffolding Theater Company has quickly established itself as the premiere theater company in Las Cruces, by keeping their productions fresh, innovative and heavily marketed to both seasoned theater veterans and those all-important younger audiences. McQueen and Lucero are, in a sense, rewriting the book on how theater should be presented in the 21st century. Not just here in Las Cruces, but everywhere.

The question I pose to the other theater companies in Las Cruces, and one in particular, is this: Isn’t it time to step up your game again? Either that, or let somebody less jaded and self-involved call the shots for a while? You might be surprised by the outcome. Maybe it’s time to step back and look at the bigger picture, instead of whining every time you get a less-than-positive review for one of your mediocre and less-than-enjoyable performances.

You’re asking people to spend their hard-earned money on what you’re producing. Don’t you owe it to them to be as prepared as possible when the curtain goes up, so they can be swept up in the magic of the moment, rather than sigh disappointedly and kiss those ill-spent dollars goodbye? There is a reason why theater audiences are dwindling in Las Cruces and it isn’t all due to the fact that they’re dying off. If you don’t begin trying to reach beyond the die-hards now, by the time they’re all gone, you won’t have an audience. Period.

Remember this too. A critical review is NOT meant to be a free advertorial for your production, despite what some apparently believe. Yes, every effort should be made to ensure the objectivity of the reviewer – which is why I never review plays that my partner Donny appears in – but, and this is a BIG BUT, if you present a half-baked production, with juvenile staging and wildly inappropriate casting, expect to have that pointed out. The job of the critical reviewer is to inform potential audiences of what they can expect when they plunk down their sheckles. If the show is well-produced and worthy of the praise it will no doubt instill, a critical review can help drive audiences in. If it’s a turd in a punchbowl, on the other hand, that critical review should stand as a warning.

As I said earlier, this is a far more honest review and rant than I would ordinarily produce when commissioned to do so. It gives singular voice to the many I have entertained over the past few months, when discussing the “state of local theater” with other concerned thespians. It is ultimately, however, just my humble opinion, based on four decades of experience as a producer, a director, an actor, a playwright and, yes, a critical reviewer of theatrical entertainment. I kinda DO know what I’m talking about. Thanks for listening.

8 thoughts on “Raising The Bar, Chicago Style

  1. YES! Thank you for saying this! I’ve been fighting LCCT for years on this. I’m using a burner email for this because THAT’S how grim the environment at LCCT is.

    1. It had to be said. I know there are many who agree, but are afraid of saying something for fear of being blackballed by the “theater royalty” in our town. I can’t think of anything more ridiculous. Especially when there is so much REAL talent in our little corner of the world.

  2. I agree that LCCT puts out a majority of bad shows, and i would argue that Black Box does as well.
    But, in their defense, they are brick-and-mortar establishments that have lots of bills to pay. Whilst “floating” companies such as Scaffolding and Lo-fi Productions can do productions when it’s convenient for them, once or twice a year, if that.
    I could understand a scathing review if the director or actors were professionals getting paid, but LCCT is a completely volunteer organization doing the best it can based on who shows up to help.
    If they’re going to continue putting out bad shows, that boat will eventually sink. I just feel like there’s no need for others to run around drilling holes.

    1. I actually agree with that. However, being brick and morter, they have a certain obligation to those season ticket holders to at least TRY and maintain a certain level of quality. There is nothing wrong with trotting out a tried-and-true “hit,” which is exactly what Chicago is, the difference being the people at Scaffolding went above and beyond to ensure that the old warhorse was presented in a fresh, new light. I’m certainly not advocating the drilling of holes in an unsturdy ship. What I’m hoping is that they will come to their senses and realize it isn’t just about what THEY want. It’s about carrying a torch that has been around much longer than the individual players and will be for centuries after, unless they drive it into the ground. I’ve seen a lot of really great theater in my time and most of it wasn’t presented by paid professionals. Just because this is Las Cruces, doesn’t mean we should have to settle for less. Not when there is some truly great talent out there waiting for a chance to prove themselves.

      1. Upon a second reading, I think I see what’s going on here, if you’ll allow me to channel Lucy Van Pelt: I think you’re more upset with how you’ve heard they’re running things over there at LCCT rather than the (god awful) productions themselves.
        And, let me be the first to say, that board definitely needs some new blood, some new, young, energetic, visionary, inspiring blood. There’s a lot of weird politics going on over there *as happens in any group dynamic* be it a community theatre board, a church youth group, a volleyball team, or a family stuck in a hotel in Colorado.
        But, let me play devil’s advocate for a second: if a group of your close friends got together, started their own theatre production company, and proceeded to put on (try as hard as they might) one horrible production after another – would you give them a scathing review?

      2. Actually I wouldn’t review them at all, because I wouldn’t be able to be objective. I would, however, let them know what I thought of their choices. You may have noticed that I’m inclined to speak my mind. Also, I’ve been down this road. Before moving here from Phoenix, I was co-founder of a theater troupe with regular four or five production seasons. I reviewed a lot of theater in Phoenix. I never reviewed a single play produced by our troupe. And really, all I’m saying here is none of this is unfamiliar territory. I’ve seen theater companies come and go, simply because they never mastered the art of audience appreciation. And, finally, none of it is based on hearsay. It’s a small community. We’re all very familiar with one another.

  3. I guess what I mean to say — sorry it takes me awhile to figure that out — is it seems a bit vitriolic, you know?
    I understand (believe me!) your desire for better quality local shows, but I feel like there’s a big difference between saying “step up your game” versus “one small group of grandstanders”.
    And I guess what I meant by “would you give your friends a scathing review” was: if your friends put on bad show after bad show, would it elicit the kind of reaction in you that caused you to write things like “turd in a punch bowl” and “less jaded and self-involved”?
    I admire the fact that you try to keep your reviews unbiased, it’s just that I feel like this particular piece seems a little mean spirited and seems to have hit you a little close to home.

  4. Hm. Perhaps. There are extenuating circumstances, of course. The most prominent being the fact that I have worked very hard to convince the main newspaper here to include theater reviews, after being told for years that it wasn’t something the editors and publisher felt their readership cared much about. It was both my tenacity and reputation as a writer that finally convinced them to give it a try. We were actually making some headway, though the plan was still in its probation period at the time of the upheaval.
    All that was swept away with one letter from one very prominent member of that group, declaring that I was single handedly “trying to destroy local theater” and expressing her desire that I never be allowed to review theater again. Done and done. So, you see, rather than take the review for what it was – honest and direct, without pointing fingers at any one performer or calling out any one crew member, choosing instead to concentrate on the problematic script itself – the producers of said “turd” decided instead to have me blackballed to avoid any future reviews wherein their poor choices and lack of quality could be pointed out.
    If the rant above came across as mean spirited, it wasn’t without provocation. And, as I have pointed out to others who have asked similar questions, neither they nor you got to read the original draft of the review in question nor the rant as it originally existed. I toned the vitriol WAY down before releasing them, choosing my words very carefully, while still knowing that there would be those who only read what they wanted to read and not what was intended.
    In closing, I offer this: Theater is in my blood. I am one of those die-hard theater people who believe in the power of the stage to give insight into the human condition in a very visceral and immediate way. It’s a powerful tool for understanding when used properly. It pains me deeply to see it misused so liberally for purely selfish reasons. I don’t need the local newspapers, or the grace of a select few to poke the bear in the hopes of augmenting change, as indicated by the number of hits this one rant/review has received and the conversation it has brought about in the “real” world.
    People can change, but sometimes they need a real wake-up call to even realize the horse they ride has become so high. I’m not trying to make enemies in the local theater community, but neither am I afraid to speak my mind like so many others. I’ve been told repeatedly that it “needed to be said.” That, in a way, is far more telling than any nasty anonymous message sent privately which, if ever seen in print, would make my vitriol look like mild displeasure. The gauntlet has been cast. Let’s see what becomes of it, shall we?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s